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Milo Rau at opening Theatre Festival: 'Maybe we should deliver a little less and listen a little more'

Art is a lot. Can also be a lot, but to solve the world's big problems you need more than an art degree. So if you ask the question: 'why theatre?', as Milo Rau did at the opening of The Theatre Festival at Amsterdam's Stadsschouwburg, for friends ITA, the answer will therefore not be: 'To solve the world's big problems.'

So that answer did not come, and fortunately Milo Rau, currently the leader of NTGent, is not looking for that either. He is the man of asking questions, and at the same time he is always looking for the borderland between fiction and reality in his work.


I have that from hearsay, as I never saw any of his work live. I did see yesterday, and I recommend you go and do the same, a documentary about a project he made with actors from NTGent and local artists in Mosul (Iraq).

Rau began his work in Ghent with a manifesto, which also stated, among other things, that at least one production a year should be made "in war zones". So for now, you have to travel far for that, and so the trip to Mosul, devastated by decades of wars, fits right in. With NTGent's actors and a dozen local students and musicians, the programme featured the Oresteia. A 2,500-year-old Greek text about the consequences of war.


It makes for a bizarre clash. That ancient Greek texts and themes have lost none of their topicality is not news in itself. The fact that they have been performed for 2,500 years proves enough. That the texts and actors are taken out of the comfort of the European theatre and confront the violence in which generations of Iraqis and Kurds have grown up is news, of course.

The encounter between artists and reality, at least as captured in the documentary, is particularly uncomfortable. Rau wants to incorporate footage of IS executions into his staging, and to shoot and rehearse that footage in the setting of the original atrocity lashes. Neither is reenacted for tender souls. However, the local students who have to perform it react to it with extraordinary giggles. The weak laughter amazes the European makers. Which in turn surprises me a little: why would you want to make theatre out of that, so close to the deed, among the unburied corpses, and for whom?

State of the Theatre

Things need time and distance to become a story. Good, then, that in his 'State of Theatre,' the traditional opening of the theatre season, Rau did not take the floor himself, but handed it over to people who are now in the midst of the confusing time of austerity, coronasteun and political turmoil. Because the 100 international makers he asked for a book entitled "Why Theatre?" could not come because of the pandemic, six Dutch makers were invited.

The six speakers did not really come up with an answer to the question, but each gave a manifesto of their motivations in their own way. It went from finely edifying by outgoing Bijlmerpark Theatre director Ernestine Comvalius, through woolly scientific by Lara Staal to searchingly poetic by Jan Joris Lamers. It all contained few new insights. Apparently, everyone had recently been too preoccupied with lobbyists and subsidy committees to be concerned with anything outside the subsidised theatre bubble.


Refreshing though was the contribution of Lester Arias, who spoke without fear of antagonising his hosts. He found everyone mostly dormant and unconcerned with the outside world, and backed this up by stating that he had more Instagram followers than everyone in the room put together. That might be true, of course, but he did run into the problem that all those Instagramfollowers don't always buy tickets for his performances. For that, in turn, he depends on the Dutch theatre circuit and its bureaucracy, which he hates so much.

So after these six speeches, Milo Rau promised a pass. 'Maybe we should deliver a little less and listen a little more,' he said in what looked like a plea to take advantage of the Corona state to take a break and think about a new future. Not to yak on as before for a while.

Good idea from Milo Rau.

Good to know Good to know

View the online programme at


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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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